Interview: The Battered Wife Who Lives Next Door
Out of the many sad stories attorney Noach Korman can tell about Bat Melech, the country's only shelter for battered women from the religious and hareidi-religious communities, there is one about a woman who came to the shelter a few months ago with her small children, seeking protection from a violent and abusive husband.
The woman knew very well how to find Bat Melech; she had been there before, a decade earlier, when her own mother escaped to the shelter to get away from her abusive husband.
This is a dark side of Israel – indeed, a dark side of the Jewish community – that few even realize is there. While perhaps not as severe an issue as it is elsewhere, Israel's Orthodox and Hareidi community too has abusive husbands and battered wives. And in the close-knit Orthodox and Hareidi communities, it is often harder for a woman to allow the community, especially her parents to whom she does not want to cause suffering, know her situation. Once she had nowhere to turn.
Today, when a woman decides that she has finally had enough and musters the mental and physical wherewithal to escape her situation, Bat Melech is ready for her, placing her and their children in temporary, comfortable quarters, finding suitable schools for her religious affiliation, while the organization's professional staff of psychologists, social workers, and attorneys help them prepare for a future free of violence..
“We started Bat Melech in 1996, when I was a young attorney representing a Hassidic woman who had run away from home with her small child,” organization director Korman says. “She slept in hotel lobbies in Jerusalem at night, and by day roamed indoor department stores and malls to keep warm. She literally had no place to go; her husband would beat her, and there were no hostels or shelters where she, as a religious woman, could go.” Although shelters are usually kosher, to religious women the atmosphere is paramount; they do not want their children in a non observant environment where they are exposed to television on Shabbat, a fact which would also jeopardize their chances for custody in divorce proceedings.
Based on this and other cases that crossed his desk, Korman realized that an important community need was not being addressed. Together with several other people, including Mrs. Estanne Fawer-Abrams, Korman founded Bat Melech.
Bat Melech started with a small apartment in Jerusalem, which had room for just a few women. After several years, the Welfare Ministry threw its support behind the organization, and today it has several apartments in Jerusalem and the center of the country where women and their children can stay. Bat Melech also operates a hotline, which, Korman says, gets about 1,600 calls a year from women seeking help. Most of the cases are resolved with the legal services the organization provides, but in extreme cases, Bat Melech staff will remove a woman from her threatening environment and house her in one of the shelter apartments.
The organization also runs educational programs in communities, teaching husbands and wives how to cope with marital difficulties and resolve them without violence.
Although designed to help battered wives, many of Bat Melech's resources actually go towards helping the children of violent marriages resolve their feelings. “Studies show that 80% of men and 60% of women who grow up in homes where they witness domestic violence will themselves be either abusers or victims. Among our most important activities is intervening to provide positive experiences for children of these marriages, to break the chain of abuse and victimization that repeats itself over generations.”
The importance of that intervention was highlighted a few weeks ago, when a woman who was a former client of Bat Melech and had divorced her first abusive husband was killed – by her second, abusive husband. “This woman, whom we knew, had grown up in an abusive household, and her mentality, like many others in these circumstances, had been skewed to lead her to accept abusive behavior as normal,” Korman says. “We were able to help her with her first marriage because she reached out to us, but we hadn't heard from her after her second marriage – until last month, when she was killed.”
The incident just reinforces Korman's efforts to impact the situation as much as he can. Of course, an effort like stemming domestic violence, especially in insular Hareidi and religious communities, will go nowhere unless the rabbis and leaders of the community are fully committed to the cause – and, says Korman, they are. “Some people are surprised to hear it, but I have yet to find one rabbi or community leader that has tried to discourage women from seeking out our service,” Korman says. The rabbis usually are intimately involved in the incidents anyway, as feuding couples seek their help. “They often contact us themselves,” Korman adds.
Has any irate husband ever demanded his wife back from the shelter? “Not once,” says Korman. “These fellows are bullies – acting tough and beating their wives at home, but outside the home, in the real world, they're much tamer,” Korman says. “Without their wives to push around, they become much more compliant.” It's that change that helps end the marriages so that many of the women who come to Bat Melech – as many as 70%, says Korman - to move on to productive lives after their marriages are over.
Korman invites all those who need help – or those who wish to lend support – to call the Bat Melech hotline, at 1-800-292333. Website: www.batmelech.org